The two selections we heard today say a lot of why our lives in this community are rooted in scripture. They give us some good insights into who we should be as a community of people who have chosen to follow Jesus.
Every Sunday morning, we gather here, sing a few songs, say a few prayers, listen to somebody speak for a while, give a bit of money, sometimes share a meal. Oh yes, and we listen to a couple of selections from a very ancient book.
Actually, it’s selections from 66 different books, all collected in what we call the Bible, or the Hebrew scriptures of law, prophets and wisdom and the New Testament of Gospels, letters and stories.
The two selections we heard today say a lot about why we do this each Sunday. They say a lot of why our lives in this community are rooted in scripture. They give us some good insights into who we should be as a community of people who have chosen to follow Jesus.
There’s a line from one of those books in the New Testament that we might keep in mind as we reflect on the two passages that we heard today. It comes from what is called the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter written probably about 30 years after the death of Jesus to the Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem in perilous times, written to give them encouragement and hope as well as some pretty complex lessons in Christian thought.
Here’s the line from the fourth chapter of that letter: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Keep that in mind as we go back to the story from the book of Nehemiah.
We don’t hear a lot about Nehemiah. He’s not one of the well-known prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. But the passage that we heard today is really at the heart of the Jewish people forming themselves into a faith tradition whose shape and form we still know today.
The Jewish leadership had been taken out of Jerusalem in the late 500s BC by the Babylonians. They lived in exile for several generations before they began to return to Jerusalem, now a city destroyed that they needed to rebuild. There were divisions among the Jews – those who had stayed behind, those who had tried to preserve their faith in exile, those who had intermarried with the Babylonians and acculturated to that land.
In the story we heard today, Ezra is the spiritual leader of the Jews at this time, Nehemiah the governor. The people seek a chance to come together. Ezra takes out a scroll and begins to read from the Torah, what we know as the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is the words from these sacred texts that help unite the people who had gathered there.
These books that form the Torah were written in large part during the exile as the leaders tried to preserve and codify the stories and traditions that were part of the Jewish experience. They understood what they were writing as an expression of God’s words for them.
This was a whole new concept – literature deemed to be God speaking to the people. There were other writings in the ancient worlds related to the gods of various people, but none of them were considered words from those gods. The Torah took on a sacred dimension, God’s own voice coming through the stories.
In the three great traditions that share Abraham as an ancestor –Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the notion that the will of God is preserved in literature is a distinctive characteristic. We are all known as “people of the book,” even if our books and the stories they contain differ from one another.
This story of the people standing up to hear the word of God read by Ezra is a critical moment. It suggests that these sacred texts are important part of what forms us into a community, even if they come from times far in the past.
But there is more.
Ezra did not read the scroll alone. There were other Levites – the priests of ancient Israel – who also read portions and then moved among the people to help them understand what was being read. As our reading today said, “They read aloud from the scroll, the instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.”
The words of scripture come alive in the discussion of what they mean. They are not simply phrases for a bumper sticker or texts that can be used to prove a point. Or, as the letter to the Hebrews said, “The word of God is living and active.” It’s not locked in a timeless vault.
Or as John Robinson, the preacher to Pilgrims as they left Holland aboard the Speedwell in 1620 to accompany the Mayflower, told the members of his congregation, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”
A few years ago, composer Christopher Grundy wrote a short song based on those words. We’ve sung it hear occasionally in the past. Let’s try it now.
More light, more truth, are breaking from your Word.
More light, more truth, Holy Spirit, help us hear what needs to be heard.
Today we use the catch phrase, “God is still speaking.” That does not mean our sacred texts don’t matter. It means we continually strive to understand them in ways that make sense for our era, just as those who came before us did.
Which brings us to Jesus.
He is at the very beginning of his public ministry. In the Gospel according to Luke, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth and a snippet about his childhood, we follow him to the Jordan River where he is baptized and into the wilderness where he wrestles with temptations to fame and power.
Now he is back in his hometown of Nazareth, but clearly has been doing a bit of preaching along the way because people are excited to hear this Spirit-filled rising young teacher.
Here in his home synagogue, he too takes a scroll – that’s the form that was used for written works in those days – and he unrolled it to some famous words from the Prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he interpreted them for his own era. And as we will hear in the continuation of this passage next week, his interpretation was not well received. The crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff.
Ah, the perils of preaching. At least the cliff out back is not very steep.
Here are my take-aways for us from these two scripture readings.
One is that notion of connecting a community through the stories we have inherited from our ancestors. Those people gathered together in Jerusalem were seeking to get past the divisions and the anxieties they had been living with. The stories of how their ancestors understood God’s presence in their midst helped bind them together.
And then they were sent off with a message of fellowship and service – “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Hearing the word was not intended to put people into a bad mood, to isolate them from one another. It led them to celebrate with one another and to look out for those who might be left out.
If the Nehemiah reading was focused on shaping the community and holding it together, the reading from Luke turns us in a different direction. How do we draw on our sacred traditions to make a difference in the world, to give hope to those in poverty, to reintegrate those in prison into our communities, to heal those who are suffering, to free those who are oppressed?
We do this remembering the words from that letter to the Hebrews: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
The word of God is not just there as a platitude to make us feel good. It has a purpose in our lives, a purpose that is tied to our willingness to engage with ancient stories, to read them to study them to discuss them, then to interpret them for our times, find God’s message in them for us and then let those words become living and active in our lives as we face the challenges in our world.
We are at our best when we do that as a community, when we let the sacred texts of our tradition help shape the way we live in 2016.